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‘Tis Pity I Can’t Watch This Every Day For The Rest Of My Ever

2012 February 7

I always worry about writing about theatre. I worry I’m not going to write about it like everyone else. I had this problem at Uni, where I studied the bloody thing. Everyone else would write about it in this classic, scholarly way and there’d be analysis and secondary critics and stuff, and I… well.

Have you ever seen those videos of Harry Potter fans in Japan? Go and YouTube some now. Okay. I’m like that, but with Jacobean revenge tragedies. I will camp out on the internet and snipe front row tickets and then work seventy hours of overtime to afford them. I will sob behind my fingers and moan, “Their love is so real” to myself as characters stab each other up on stage. I will embarrass the actors and everyone around me by simultaneously crying and cheering during the applause at the end. I’m getting a tattoo of one of the stage directions from John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, for crying out loud. A tattoo. This is a Thing for me. I’d reblog gifs all over Tumblr for The Changeling and Edward II if such gifs existed.

But they don’t, because it’s just me.

I get away with writing flailing fanboyish nonsense for my film reviews, but I don’t know how far I’ll get away with it for this. Let’s see.

What it is, is that I went to see Cheek By Jowl’s new production of the aforementioned ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last week. It’s a modern dress production, featuring a single, static set, a nearly omnipresent ensemble cast, and modern dance. Oh, and lots and lots of sex and violence. It’s directed by Declan Donnellan, who took a modern dress production around London in the ’80s, and this is his new version that’s doing a big tour around France and the Sydney Festival, before coming to roost in London’s Barbican Centre in the near future.

Before I trundle on in my usual obtuse fashion, let me outline the plot of ‘Tis Pity for you, in case you don’t know it. Once upon a time in Parma, Giovanni falls in love with his sister Annabella. It’s requited and consensual and they carry on in secret for some time. Annabella is, unfortunately, being courted by sixty zillion guys other than her brother, and her father’s all, “please marry someone because your brother’s a bit useless, ps. don’t marry your brother lol”. It’s all okay and she can put off marriage virtually indefinitely, which is relevant to her interests because she’s in a very nice relationship with Giovanni, ta very much AND THEN SHE BECOMES THE PREGNANT and GUESS WHAT it’s obviously her brother’s. So, in order to divert the dreadful shame of being pregnant out of wedlock, she marries Suitor #1, Soranzo, who is not a very nice man (with previous abusive history) and who has an even worse manservant called Vasques, who likes to shiv people. Soranzo finds out Annabella’s pregnant, Vasques does some Sherlocking and finds out it’s Giovanni’s, and Giovanni, with time-honoured 24-carat flawless logic, decides to avert the on-coming crisis by killing Annabella, ripping out her heart, and taking the heart to a party. Then, everyone dies.

It’s the best play.

I was amazed at the audience, first. It was all – ALL – middle class couples about twice my age! They didn’t look as though they were there for the same reasons I was, to put it tactfully. I felt decidedly shifty in my spiked collar and skinny jeans, with my boyfriend and my ‘hawk haircut. Aside from the central relationship, I was looking forward to seeing how homoerotic this production had made Vasques’s relationship with his master, Soranzo. And, yes, I wanted to see squirting blood and eye-gouging. That’s what I was there for, and I clutched my Feelings Scarf (the stripy scarf I take to every film or play I see so that I can cuddle it and cry into it; I am ridiculous) and was essentially self conscious right up until Annabella (Lydia Wilson) came on stage.

As soon as she emerged, I lost my comparing-myself-to-the-audience anxiety completely. With ‘Tis Pity, I’m used to Annabella being painted as this passive recipient of Giovanni’s (Jack Gordon) affections. She is tossed about between her suitors and her brother, and it’s never really clear what she wants because you only ever see her through the lens of the men and their desires – so she’s this unattainable, Madonna/whore figure that I’d never really felt I could connect with.

Not this Annabella! Nope. She’s a tiny, scrappy waif with a half-shaved head and tangled hair, adjusting her laptop with her feet so that she can watch a film with her headphones on. Her bedroom – the set where the whole thing takes place – is adorned with posters for True Blood and Dial M For Murder, absinthe and The Vampire Diaries. She has tattoos and scruffy sneakers. Just visually, I found her easy to bond with: like someone I could have met in the pub. “Shame, though,” I thought, watching her bounce about on her bed, waiting for the lights to drop and the play to properly start, “that the play is mostly from Giovanni’s perspective.”

While that’s textually true, it certainly wasn’t the case for this production, which literally revolves around Annabella. She’s practically on stage all the time, even when she’s not participating in a scene. She’s picked up and hoisted about. She leads the dance numbers. She gets dressed up as a Madonna, complete with lit-up fairylight halo. She has all these extra actions and reactions, and when she speaks, she speaks… clearly. She fights back when Soranzo (Jack Hawkins) hits her. Her decisions about herself and her love life are clearly made, physically and verbally, and she makes her mind explicit. I was, frankly, amazed, having never really seen Annabella performed with this kind of clarity and sympathy before. I’m normally a Giovanni kind of guy – I always read him as this obsessive, devoted, atheist whose life is ruined by his social context and coercively-assigned religion, but Donnellan’s staging gives Annabella such agency that watching it, I found my allegience changed.

Soranzo, Annabella’s abusive suitor, whom she marries in haste to cover her pregnancy, was also painted rather more sympathetically than usual, which I found problematic. Yes, I know it’s boring and tedious to have Soranzo just be this using, bastardous wanker with no other dimensions at all, but, for the love of god, he hits her! He hits her and draws blood! He beats her and fetches a coathanger as if to forcibly abort her pregnancy! Come on! And then, we get this bizarre little insertion of tenderness where he buys her baby clothes and they look at them together and he’s sweet and tender, and you can see she’s changing her mind about him, and that’s not in the text, that’s been deliberately added – but why? Tell me I’m not the only one to find that intensely fucking awkward. I mentioned the coathanger, right?

As you can imagine, this production isn’t going to be easy viewing for everyone. It never is. It’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. It’s a sympathetic play about incest that features heavy violence. This, however, is a marvellously hard-hitting, sensuous, lush performance all lit in red and green, which makes the action simultaneously really gory and really… I don’t know, tactile? (Men get their shirts off a lot and touch each other. I was a bit overwhelmed. You gotta understand.)

Oh, wait, wait, one other thing: Vasques (Laurence Spellman). In the text, Vasques is pretty much uniformly a Super Bastard. He double-crosses everyone, faithful only to his master – also a bastard – and doesn’t hesitate to seduce and murder his way around the cast, eventually to gloat over how he, as a Spaniard, has outdone the Italians in revenge. And in this production, he’s amazingly likeable! I mean, he’s still a double-crossing, seducing bastard, but he has vulnerability and passion. He folds Soranzo up in his arms and cuddles him. (Oh, and he also has a male stripper bite out the comic relief character’s tongue on stage. He caresses and kisses said stripper while he does it.)

Ford should have called this play Sex and Violence and Incest Party in Parma, Wooooo, and I think Donnellan’s production certainly does the text justice. There’s a lot of bodily fluids either visible or implied (at one point Vasques visibly orgasms whilst licking someone’s shoes, for example) and the whole thing is amazingly visceral to an extent where audience members were cringing and gasping around me. Religion seeps through the action to a huge extent, as is only proper – there’s veils and rosaries aplenty, and a bleeding-heart Jesus on the wall. You end up feeling that, were it not for a societal damnation of incest and premarital sex, Giovanni and boisterous, playful Annabella would be happy together; their separation through the external (ecclesiastical) pressures on her to marry is heartbreakingly, agonisingly painful.

Oh, and there’s a dancing cardinal.

If you have the means and time to go and see this production, I cannot recommend it highly enough. You won’t see anything else like it, and ‘Tis Pity is performed so rarely (probably due to the content!) that when a company does do it, it’s because they really relish it, and it shows. It really shows.

SUFFICE TO SAY, my Feelings Scarf got a good wringing.

  • ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore hits London’s Barbican Centre from 16 Feb-22 March 2012. For the full tour, click here.
3 Responses leave one →
  1. KAA permalink
    February 7, 2012

    Great review. I love this play and have been wanting to see this for a while and now even more so! Just wanted to say about the presentation of Soranzo, while I agree it sounds awkward from one perspective, from another it also sounds like a really well observed version of the cyclical dynamics of many real abusive relationships. Also, maybe they needed that in there to make it believable that this stronger Annabella would stay?

    Btw, did you know Angela Carter rewrote ‘Tis Pity as a Western style short story? It’s brilliant but most ‘Tis Pity scholars I know haven’t heard of it so I always pimp it when I get the chance!

  2. Sarah Cook permalink
    February 7, 2012

    Cheek by Jowl are AMAZING. Also, as a theatre producer and sometime theatre maker I am so glad that there are people out there who actually watch shows. get involved and get carried along by it rather than sitting in their seats, sedately and going “hmmmm”

    Woo!

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